© Rex A E Hunt
Spirit of Life Unitarian Fellowship
Kirribilli NSW


"Scrooge was right! Christmas is humbug!" the street corner evangelist shouted. 
"I can't stand this commercialised excuse for a religious event.”
Such was his anger that I expected him to rush into the nearby shopping centre,
push his way through the line of mothers with their sticky little children,
                accost Santa Claus, rip his beard right off his face and,
                holding it high in the air, shout at the terrified children:
                                                 "He's a fake! He’s exploiting you! He’s exploiting Christmas!”

The Christmas that Australians celebrate today seems like a timeless weaving of
custom and feeling beyond the reach of ordinary history.
        Yet the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree, and Santa
        that have come to define December 25 is little more than 135 years old.

Since its inception Christmas has been debated, ignored, celebrated, banned, and reshaped.
A study of its development suggests this festival has always been
        a weaving together of popular culture and religion
        within each environment where it is acknowledged and celebrated,
                      and neither side can lodge any claim of exclusivity.

As a pre-Christian festival, its traditions go way back in time
to changes in the seasons and the affects these changes had on people,
        their social life, and work situations.

As a Christian event, the so-called "Feast of the Nativity of our Lord"
didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until well into the 4th century.
        And then as a result of a series of mixed motives,
        including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals.

Such a ‘take-over’ seems to be the pattern of Christianity.
“Expansionist religions like Christianity,” writes Australian theologian Roland Boer,
“work by taking over and appropriating the symbols and practices of a whole range of non Christian belief systems.” (Boer 2000:41-42)


In 1788 when the First Fleet arrived from England,
Governor Arthur Phillip not only established a penal colony
- a gaol for the 736 convicts and to a certain extent, the marines and officers who accompanied them -
he also won the land for ‘protestant’ Christianity. (Breward 1988:2)

However, Phillip saw religion as a
“useful package of warnings and admonitions that supplemented the cell, chains, the lash, the gallows, or the rewards and remissions for good conduct.” (Blainey 1987:429)

The case of the moral policeman!
Hence christianity was in the main rejected by the convicts
        and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years.

Which has led some to conclude that in Australia,
christianity has always been rather a casual affair.
                 And at best, the nation was only ever superficially christianised.

As an event in Australian society, Christmas
in the early days of the colony held little importance.

Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday a holiday was not declared.
And the day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican church parade or,
        if punishment had to be administered to a convict,
        perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered.

It wasn’t until the mid- to late- 1800s that much of what we in Australia
identify as ‘Christmas’ was really celebrated.

And this came about as the result of the influence of several events,
primarily in England and America, including changes in technology,
the development of the ‘penny post’ system,
and at least three samplings from within popular culture:
(i) an imaginative poem written by an protestant American minister of religion for his three daughters,
'A Visit from St. Nicholas;
(ii) some art sketches inspired by that poem,
along with a series of commercial advertisements for an American soft drink manufacturer, and
(iii) a Christmas morality story published in England by Charles Dickens 
originally called
A Christmas Carol, in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

Much later, when Christmas did begin to influence
the social and religious life of the colony,
        it was mostly through secular ‘nostalgia’ rather than religious leanings.

Old customs and symbols such as the tree and presents were yearned for,
and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited
        as ships from England docked in December.

These old traditions were never totally abandoned,
but aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’ and became increasingly nationalistic.
        Australian Christmas card art competitions were held, with cash prizes.
        And the small tree, aptly named ‘Christmas Bush’,
                  which was growing in great abundance around Sydney,
                   became a popular substitute for the fir (Christmas) tree. 

And while American artist Thomas Nast introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus
to the world in the 1860s, some enterprising Australian artists a few years later,
soon gave him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit,
complete with kangaroo driven sleigh.


In popular belief it is said the foundational stories of Christmas
can be found in the nativity stories of the anonymous storytellers
we call Matthew and Luke, in the Christian scriptures.

Both stories, very different from each other in general shape, atmosphere and content,
came rather later in the biblical tradition - probably anything from 85CE - 125CE.
         And in spite of the modern tendency to homogenise them into one classic tale,
         they are very different. 

As a former theological seminary professor of mine has written:
“... Luke’s account is full of strong, vibrant, bright colours with just a hint of umbers in the background. The other, Matthew’s account, is rich but sombre, darkly hued, and strangely shaded. Luke tells a cheerful tale, a buoyant, hopeful, joyous tale. Matthew tells a gothic tale, fascinating, disturbing, disquieting.” (Griffin 1982:55)

Of these two stories, one, Luke’s birth story of Jesus of Nazareth,
has had an enormous influence on the Christian imagination.

For many Christians Luke’s story is the Christmas story,
even though the birth itself is only briefly mentioned
        and is not really the focus of the story.

The story brings together the imperial power of the divine saviour Augustus,
lowly shepherds, and angels from heaven,
          all around the birth of a baby in makeshift accommodation far from home.

The humble physical setting and the supernatural splendour of a chorus of angels
are strong storyteller clues as to how the story’s listeners
       are to make sense of this story.

What is usually shocking to adherents of Christianity is to be told that,
if there is any history in these stories, it may well be limited to very few possibilities:
(i) Jesus may well have been born during the reign of Herod the Great, although that is not certain.
Neither is the claim that Herod murdered babies wholesale in the hope of eliminating Jesus as a rival king;
(ii) Jesus’ home was almost certainly Nazareth and he was quite possibly born there, and
(iii) His mother’s name may well have been Mary and we have no reason to doubt that the child was named Yeshu’a.

So why these stories? Scholars suggest
there are two possible ways of accounting for the creation of these stories.
        I will only mention one: the comparative study of hellenistic biographies.

To account for Jesus’ unusual life and noble death
in terms that enhance his comparison with other famous people,
        the nativity stories mimic the pattern of Hellenistic biography
        where the stories of their heroes lives were read and interpreted backwards.

Each biography followed a set structure of at least five elements:
(i)  a genealogy revealing illustrious ancestors,
(ii)  an unusual, mysterious, or miraculous conception,
(iii)  an annunciation by an angel or in a dream,
(iv)  a birth accompanied by supernatural portents, and
(v)  praise or forecast of great things to come, or persecution by a potential competitor

In general terms these five elements can be found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy stories. 

So why these stories? Bishop Jack Spong also suggests:
“Matthew and Luke, the authors of these biblical birth stories used them to introduce their account of the adult Jesus, who opened eyes to see things never before seen and who moved lives in profound and wondrous ways.” (Spong 2016)

While the Christian religious ‘infancy stories’ may have provided
the fundamental rationale for the festival within the institutional church,
        even giving the festival its original core,
                for the most part and for most people,
                they no longer function as determinative.  

From the beginning the church’s hold over Christmas
was and remains still, rather tenuous.

While it seems there will always be people in our multicultural,
multi-faith 21st century for whom Christmas is a pious devotion
        rather than a popular festival,
        such pious people were always in the minority.

Christmas is a global and hybrid celebration,
which weaves together religion-media-culture, creating a legitimacy of its own.  

And for many people today Christmas is just that... Christmas!  
An accepted part of the annual cycle of events,
        and something to be entered into and enjoyed.

No matter how vehemently preachers or theologians
        or ordinary churchgoing folk might decry the fact,
        or stage mock assassinations of Santa Claus,
        or try to establish who influenced whom for what purposes,
“the Christian feast integrated certain originally non-Christian elements, and that has remained precisely the case down to the present moment... Christmas is firmly established in its socio-cultural environment, in terms of that environment.” (Roll 1995:257, 269)

Christmas is the most human and loveable, and easily
the most popular festival of the year involving nearly all the population.
        And it would never have achieved the level of importance which it enjoys today
        “unless it had struck deep folk roots... and called forth a natural, spontaneous human response.” (Roll 1995:271)

Writing back in 1912 historian Clement Miles describes the Christmas festival
as being shaped by two distinct streams or feelings: the ‘carol spirit’ and the ‘mystical spirit’.  

The former being the simple, human joyousness,
the tender and graceful imagination gathered around the folk song/culture called the ‘carol’.  

The latter being the ‘religious’ feeling which is associated with the
“tender, weak, helpless, yet all-potential babe, that has given the Church’s festival its strongest hold.” (Miles 1912/76:156)

At its best Christmas is a mirror in which we see reflected the very best life can be.
Where we see ourselves moved by generosity,
inspired by hope, and uplifted by love,
not only for ourselves but for the whole universe.

But perhaps most especially, for those we usually find unlovable.

British scholar Daniel Millar suggests that the modern controversy which now surrounds Christmas
is whether or not the most powerful of all forces, that of commerce,
“has been so successful in its appropriation as to overturn and then destroy the spirit of Christmas celebrated by Dickens.” (Millar 1993:4)  

While many in the traditional church would seem to agree
that ‘commerce’ is the problem,  few want to concede that a ‘loss’
        is the Dickens sentimentalism.  

At workshops I have conducted over severaly years,
including many with church groups, their religious piety is to the fore...
        ‘put Christ back into Christmas’ and
        ‘where in the Bible is the word ‘Christmas’?’  

But, when I also attempt to ‘unwrap’ the many customs which make up Christmas today,
they are often shocked and insist it wouldn’t be the same without them.
        They still want the tinsel!

So this Christmas, dreaming of a Berlin/Crosby ‘white’ one,
could be influenced by some Dickens-type nostalgia that never really was.

Or, if they follow suit of a few years ago,
it could be responding to the National Australia Bank’s offer of
        four bottles of Sauvignon Blanc.

Both the pre-Christian folk-festivals and modern popular culture celebrations
are essentially life-affirming. They say ‘yes’ to life.  
        For life is not a great ready-made thing out there.
        Life is ourselves and what we make it.
                       It includes everything and excludes nothing.

Such a view stands in shape contrast to much evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity
with its unchanging sky god, and which still is
“pessimistic as regards this earth, and value[s] it only as a place of discipline for the life to come.” (Miles 1912/76:25)

No wonder popular culture wins out all the time!

Indeed, it may not be going too far to say that Christmas
has always been an extremely difficult holiday to christianise!  (Nissenbaum 1996)

Blainey, G. “Sydney 1877” in (ed) D. J. Mulvaney & J. P. White. Australians. To 1788.  Broadway. Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, 1987
Boer, R. “Bilbies, Gumnuts and Thanksgiving, or the Commodified Religious Imagination in Australia and America” in Australian Religious Studies Review 13, 1, Autumn, 40-55, 2000
Breward, I. Australia. The Most Godless Place Under Heaven. Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books, 1988
Griffin, G. “The Colour of Joy” in N. Watson. (ed) Jesus Christ for us. Reflections on the Meaning of Christ appropriate to Advent and Christmas. Melbourne. JBCE, 1982
Hunt, R. A. E. Cards, Carols, and Claus: Christmas in Popular Culture and Progressive Christianity. Northcote. Morning Star Publishing, 2013
Miller, D. (ed) Unwrapping Christmas. Oxford. Clarendon/Oxford University Press, 1993
Miles, C. A. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. New York. Dover Publications, 1912/76
Nissenbaum, S. The Battle for Christmas. A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday. New York. Vintage Books, 1996
Roll, S. K. Toward the Origins of Christmas. Kampen. Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1995
Spong, J. S. “A Post Christmas Look Back at the Stories of Jesus Birth”. Newsletter, 12 January, 2006
Wilson, B. “The Church in a Secular Society” in D. Harris, D Hynd, & D Millikan. (ed) The Shape of Belief. Christianity in Australia Today. Homebush. Lancer Books, 1982